Data: we need a better metaphor
How employers rule our lives
In 2011, the Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania, published an exposé about the working conditions at a local Amazon warehouse. That summer, temperatures inside the warehouse had risen above a hundred degrees; managers, citing concerns about theft, had refused to open the doors for ventilation, instead stationing ambulances outside so that employees could be hospitalized if they collapsed. Job applicants, desperate for work, lined up to replace the fallen.
Stories like this are surprisingly common, Elizabeth Anderson writes, in “Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It)”; in fact, they characterize life for millions of Americans. Anderson reports that audits by the Department of Labor have found “sweatshop-like conditions” in ninety-three per cent of the garment factories in Southern California. In many poultry plants, employees are denied bathroom breaks and must wear adult diapers. Forty-one per cent of workers have unpredictable schedules, with employers summoning and dismissing them at will; ninety per cent of restaurant workers say that they have been sexually harassed; millions of employees are subject to drug screening without cause. According to some studies of wage theft, as much as fifty billion dollars is stolen from workers every year by employers who simply refuse to pay.
After the Morning Call article, Amazon spent fifty-two million dollars to install air-conditioning in its warehouses, but, strictly speaking, nothing about that overheated warehouse (or those hyper-efficient poultry plants) is illegal. In general, workers are seen as consenting adults who have entered into mutually satisfying agreements with their employers. Because employees can quit at any time, bosses are free to treat them more or less however they want.
In “Private Government,” Anderson explores a striking American contradiction. On the one hand, we are a freedom-obsessed society, wary of government intrusion into our private lives; on the other, we allow ourselves to be tyrannized by our bosses, who enjoy broad powers of micromanagement and coercion. Anderson believes that many American workers are constrained by rules that would be “unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.” She estimates that more than half are “subject to dictatorship at work.”
A usual response to this is that employees are free to walk away from a job, a boss, or a company they don’t like. Well, they certainly can… but not without putting their livelihood in jeopardy. More so if, as is increasingly the case, one has signed a non-compete agreement.
for many workers, there is nowhere to emigrate to. Especially at the lower end of the income scale, bad working conditions are so pervasive that switching jobs just means trading one bad boss for another.
The private-public distinction is thus:
whether you’re a C.E.O., a mayor, or the head of a campus commune, there are two ways of being in charge. If you exercise “public government,” you allow the people you rule to have a say in how they are governed; if you wield “private government,” the rules are not up for debate.
In public government, decision-making is everybody’s business—the government “belongs” to everyone, like a public park. In private government, it belongs to the governor, as his or her private possession. When parents say that their rules exist “because I say so,” they are exercising private government over their children. By contrast, our democracy is a public government, in which citizens have a say over the content of their laws.
Giving “a voice,” through a system of workers’ councils, to allow them to elect representatives who participate in executive decision-making has been tried, in Germany and elsewhere, and it has sometimes made workplaces better. However, in the Anglo-American world corporations are run privately.The reviewer concludes:
One reason we don’t talk about it is that we don’t want to acknowledge how much the rhetoric of American freedom outruns the constraints of private government. Corporate power was always going to win out over libertarian fantasy. This defeat is hard to admit.